Judaism, Mindfulness and President George W. Bush Help Community Member Cope with Disability
By Tonyia Cone
When Marco Vasquez enlisted in the United States Army in February 2001, it was peacetime.
Married for three years, with two babies, he saw his military service as a path to financing his college education.
After completing Infantry and Airborne Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Vasquez was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.
The events of 9/11 took Vasquez in a direction he was not expecting. He deployed to Iraq in winter 2003, where he took part in Operation Shock and Awe, the initial invasion of Iraq, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Vasquez earned his Combat Infantry Badge participating in key operations in Al Najaf, Fallujah, Baghdad and Mosul.
When indirect fire blasts left him with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, Vasquez was honorably discharged from active service, and he went home to grapple with his disabilities.
Angry and afraid because of his experience in Iraq, Vasquez struggled to hold conversations with his wife, Amber, and to look her in the eye. He went through 13 jobs, three suicide attempts and inpatient psychological care.
“I came back a mess,” he said. “I didn’t know my struggles were just about to begin.”
Taught in the military to “suck it up and drive on” and go on with life, he self-medicated with alcohol and Vicodin.
“All that time, I was going through the motions. I was there but don’t remember anything,” Vasquez explained.
In 2014, things turned around for Vasquez when Veterans Affairs awarded him 100 percent disability, and he went to the Rehabilitation Center of Santa Monica in California. He sobered up, learned about mindful meditation, and has since started practicing yoga.
“My wife kind of put up with everything. She has been my advocate for any kind of rehabilitation I’ve done,” he said, adding that he has done cognitive therapy, acupuncture, tai chi, somatic experience, Wounded Warrior trips and bonding with other combat veterans.
“She just signed me up and said this is what you gotta do. I didn’t think anything was wrong.
When someone’s sick, they can’t help themselves. They need someone else to help them. That was my story for a long time,” Vasquez explained.
Today, spirituality is another source of strength for Vasquez. Originally from El Paso, Vasquez learned of his family’s Crypto Jewish heritage in 1995, while he was in seminary school. He left his program, pursued his Jewish roots, and as he fumbled with the decision to convert, he listed Judaism as his religion when he enlisted in the Army.
“If I died in combat, I wanted to be buried as a Jew,” he said.
Vasquez’s religious journey was put on hold while he was in Iraq. Then after he got out of the Army and moved to Austin along with his family, his wife began looking for a shul and connected with Rabbi Neil Blumofe at Congregation Agudas Achim. When Vasquez struggled with his disabilities and was disconnected from his family, the congregation was there for Amber and his children, who converted to Judaism in 2005.
“I on the other hand, hated anything that had to do with religion or God,” Vasquez said, adding that this too turned around when he started getting into meditation and mindfulness in 2014.
“It brought me closer to unconditional love for myself, and I was able to be present. I had never even thought of being present and staying in the moment,” a perspective that allowed him to open his mind to spirituality, he said.
When he returned from the California rehab center, Blumofe was patient and there for Vasquez, who converted to Judaism that same year.
“Mindfulness and meditation rewired my brain. It helped me so much,” said Vasquez, adding, “I wish more veterans would appreciate awareness. Sobriety is real, and mindfulness can awaken you. That’s where my journey began. With Judaism, I’m embracing it even more.”
Vasquez said his family spends a great deal of time at Congregation Agudas Achim, where his four children have become b’nai mitzvah.
“That’s my home. That’s my shalom, a place of peace and for the kids. Everyone in my family loves the shul,” he said.
In 2014, Vasquez applied and was selected for the George W. Bush Institute’s Warrior 100K, an annual 100-kilometer mountain bike ride with President George W. Bush for servicemen and women wounded since 9/11.
At an event the evening before the ride, Vasquez had a microphone and three minutes to tell his story. The next day, during the ride, he was asked to ride with a small group of veterans, Bush and his Secret Service staff at the front of the pack. Bush told Vasquez he was proud of him, it took guts to tell that story, and told of his own sobriety.
In October, Vasquez participated in the W100K for the fourth time, and said this year’s ride was probably the best yet.
“Our conversations are totally different, more relaxed now,” said Vasquez, explaining that while he told of his struggle in 2014, this year he told Bush his life is wonderful.
Bush included Vasquez’s likeness in “Portraits of Courage,” a mural that was exhibited at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and will soon tour museums across the country, and his 2017 book of the same name, a collection of oil paintings and stories honoring the sacrifice and courage of U.S. military veterans.
“He said, ‘When I think of you I think of enlightenment, like you saw the light.’ He painted light in my face because he wanted to tell others of my mindfulness experience,” Vasquez explained.
Looking forward to going to college in the spring, Vasquez is continuing to work with the Bush Center on his educational and career future.
Not being forgotten is the most important part of his connection to Bush, the W100K and
“Portraits of Courage,” explained Vasquez, who rides in Austin with Bush’s friends, and has attended other events with Bush, including Bush’s 70th birthday party.
“I’m so happy. I see the creativity, the love, the community, that it’s not going away, and I want to be a part of this. I get excited being with the president and his people and the veterans he’s surrounding me with,” said Vasquez. “It’s been a long road, but PTS and TBI is manageable. It never goes away but there’s a place where you can really manage it. I can only believe that it’s just going to get better from here.” ■